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houseWeek 58 of the occupation

By Shea Howell
Special to the Michigan Citizen

Homes left empty by the foreclosure crisis are like open wounds. My neighborhood is no exception. Over the years, we have had our share of abandoned houses, but most found their way to new families.

But the foreclosure crisis hit us like a tidal wave. Three years ago, my neighbor of 35 years left her home. A retired Detroit Public Schools teacher, she took out a loan to fix her roof, build a new garage, and pave her driveway. Sensible repairs on a house she intended to live in with her sister until she died.

She was too embarrassed to tell anyone the loan she took out to pay for these repairs had suddenly ballooned. Even with the help of her sister it was too much for her.

So one morning the moving truck arrived. By evening she was gone, leaving a box of things on the porch she thought her children might want. Only as she was pulling out did she call and tell them what happened.

She raised three children in that house. They celebrated birthdays, graduations and daily life. Her sons grew to adulthood with the help of the basketball net above the garage doors. Her husband died in that house. Over the years, it expanded to include grandchildren and friends. It was a place of memory and comfort, conflict and sorrow. And it was a source of community safety. Someone was always home, keeping an eye on the comings and goings. It was the house we all went to for the neighborhood news.

That disappeared in a day.

Her children came for the box, shocked. They would have helped. They had no idea. In the end, they emptied the box. All that was left of the life they shared.

Over the next two years, the only thing the bank did was paste a sign on the window. Neighbors organized to keep the grass cut, shovel the snow, and pick up the leaflets that seemed to appear every day. We kept watch and discouraged those who tried to take pipes and siding.

Finally, we were lucky. A couple bought the house. But they cannot replace the hole left in our community. Relationships build over time, shared lives and experiences disrupted are a ragged edge, not easily repaired.

I have been thinking about the day my neighbor left since I read the report from the Haas Institute this week. “Underwater America” describes how the problem of “underwater mortgages” where homeowners are stuck in loans for more than their house is worth persists in communities across the country. It documents the housing crisis is far from over.

It explains, “How the legacy of predatory lending has meant a disproportionate negative impact on African American and Latino communities.

“Neighborhoods in all regions of the country — from Milwaukee to Memphis, Atlanta to Las Vegas, and beyond — are continuing to suffer with more than one-fifth of homes currently underwater in the 15 hardest hit metropolitan areas with populations over one million,” said Professor Gregory Squires, of the Department of Sociology at George Washington University.

Detroit ranks number five of the hardest hit cities with 47 percent of our homes underwater. It is number one in the absolute number of homes in foreclosure or default in 2013.

Behind these numbers are the lives of people facing impossible, painful choices.

Professor Squires offers some hope, saying, “The failure of a wide array of federal programs to stem this tide has caused many desperate local communities to consider bold action, including the use of eminent domain, to purchase these loans at current market value and refinance them to help millions of at-risk families to save their homes. These local laboratories of democracy may well signal a nationwide social movement that will put the financial crisis behind us.”

We need a lot more than the mayor’s efforts to auction off a few empty houses if we are to strengthen our communities.


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